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Accolade sparkling head and wine icon Ed Carr on launching Tasmanian fizz onto the world stage

Published:  01 November, 2018

Fresh from his win at the Lifetime Achievement Awards at last week’s Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships in London, Ed Carr, group head sparkling winemaker at Accolade Wines talked to Harpers about putting Tasmania on the map.

Few are more proud and protective of their name than the Champenois.

So when Ed Carr, group head sparkling winemaker of Accolade Wines and head winemaker at Tasmanian estate House of Arras came along and scooped up the Lifetime Achievement Award at The Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships - making him the first non-Champenois to do so – he certainly managed to turned a few heads.

As the buzz around Tasmanian wine worldwide has grown over the past few years, House of Arras and others like Bay of Fires (also Accolade), Jansz, Pirie and Apogee have received their fair of awards and recognition.

In 2016, Arras won the Best Wine in Show at three capital city wine shows, trumping every still wine in the country and last year was named the Best Australian Producer at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in the United Kingdom.

Such accolades prompted one of Australia's top Champagne and sparkling critics, Tyson Steltzer, to call Tasmania's sparkling wines “a global benchmark".

But last week’s win is a further endorsement for the man who, in 1995, decided to ‘dip his toe’ in Tasmania’s unchartered waters, at least when it comes to wine.

Back then, Accolade was still BRL Hardy, before the merger with US spirits group, Constellation Brands.

At the time, the company had identified its sparkling wine for restructure and expansion, with the aim to offer a sparkler “at each price point and with our own style”.

When it came to finding a premium tier, Carr started looking at buying Tasmanian grapes on the open market.

“Our chief winemaker and head of marketing at the time said, ‘What’s the best sparkling we can make?’ I always felt Tasmania would be the place to make a top shelf label. So we started buying grapes and making it without a brand name. The quality was so high and the results so positive that we’ve spent the last 20 years expanding our Tasmanian resources,” Carr said.

The first vintage wine from 1995 was first released four years later under the Arras name.

Since then, it has become one of the flagship labels available through Fine Wine Partners – Accolade’s recently launched fine wine division.

Sitting just beneath Arras is Bay of Fires (Tasmania), Yara Burn from the Victoria and Yarra Valleys, and Adeliaide Hills’ Croser, the eponymous label founded by Australian OZ cool climate viticulture icon Brian Croser.

Grant Burge was purchased by Fine Wine Partners in 2015, but is not currently available in the UK.

Then, in the commercial segment are Hardy’s and Banrock Station, retailing in the UK for around £10.

Car said: “Our acquisition policy was in general to expand into regions and styles we didn’t have. Grant Burge came about because Accolade didn’t have a strong Barossa brand. How can you be big Australian company and not have that?”

Croser has been a “very successful” brand for Accolade, with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blends that “show regionality.”

Finding its feet 

Such regionality is currently underdeveloped in Tasmania. Maybe in the future, Carr said, but for now, he is focused on communicating what makes Tasmania and Arras unique as well as looking to expand.

This is difficult however.

Grape production is 0.5% of Australia from just 2,000ha - close to the 2,500ha under vine in England and Wales - and is stretched further due to high demand.

As such, expansion is a “long-term plan”, with plantings of mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay happening all the time.

In the meantime, a network of growers from Pipers River and Tamar Valley in the north, all along the east coast to Derwent Valley near the capital of Hobart in the south contribute fruit.

“Grapes from all those regions go into the blend. Our aim has never been to focus on a single vineyard or sub region and we see that as advantage. It means we can pick the qualities of varieties we want from different regions and tailor them to our individual labels. It also gives us many more blending options. We’re still only 20 years into this so we’re still learning,” Carr said.

Still, he believes Tasmania is “the place to be” for top end Australian sparkling: “Tasmania is very different to Adelaide. Tasmania is very cool, very maritime with ancient non-fertile soils, and a rain shadow from the high country in the west which means the vines get the right amount of water. It hasn’t got chalk soils like Champagne either. 99% of it is down to climate. We see positives and negatives from all regions, but there is a lot of premium fruit and a lot of demand.”

Recently, Carr and Accolade make a bold statement by releasing a 2001 Arras Blancs de Blancs.

This was a step that was necessary, Carr felt, to bring the label up to world parity, and to separate it from other Australian sparkling wines which usually only have up to three years on the lees, and seven to 10 for a vintage Champagne.

“It’s only a small batch, but it shows how well the wines can age, which we knew we needed to show to bring the wines up to world standard. We knew from the beginning quality was high. But what’s amazed us is the longevity of the wine,” Carr said.

Climate change is also a consideration – harvest is moving around seven days a decade in Tasmania.

But overall, Carr is excited for what the future holds, and sees longevity in not just the wines themselves but in the longevity of the world’s new sparkling wine regions now emerging.

He said: “I think it’s great we’ve got this new world developments. Champagne is finite. Their share can only decline unless they plant more, which would involve major politics. The Champenois want to move outwards as well. Chandon is in Australia and California now and Champagne brands are investing in the UK too. Global sparkling consumption going up, so there’s a lot of opportunity.”

Sparkling wine in numbers

Sparkling wine accounts for a 10% share of global wine production (270 million cases).

Europe produces over 80% of the world’s sparkling wine (220 million cases).

Australia, including Tasmania, is ranked 7th with 7 million cases.

Global sparkling sales have grown from 155 million cases in 1990 to 260 million cases in 2017.

The UK, along with the USA, are the two biggest importers globally for sparkling wine.

Not only are they the biggest imported sparkling markets, they also have shown the most consistent growth, driven by Italian Prosecco, over the last five years.

Volumes of Australian sparkling exports have steadily declined in the past decade, driven by the budget end, whereas a much smaller volume of premium wines are seeing value growth.  

Australian sparkling sales are flat in the domestic market while imports are on the rise.

Australia dominates the domestic off-trade sparkling wine market, with 80% of sales. The next biggest two countries of origin are France (11%) and Italy (5%).

Prosecco is the fastest growing category in Australia’s off-trade, with younger consumers favouring Prosecco and Cava.

In 2018, Tasmania has 160 licenced wine producers making wine over 230 vineyards covering 2,000 ha.

This is less than 0.5% of total Australia grape production

Statistics from Wine Australia, IWSR and IRI. Figures as of 2017. Australian Figures include Tasmania.